The media today: Jemele Hill and the perils of social-media commentary

A month after finding herself embroiled in a controversy that reached the White House, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill has been suspended two weeks for what the company calls a second violation of its social media policies. The offending statements concerned a possible boycott of Dallas Cowboys advertisers in response to owner Jerry Jones’s threat to bench any player who didn’t stand for the National Anthem.

Hill, of course, faced calls for her job after she labeled Donald Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists” in September, and Monday’s announcement once again draws attention to the use of social media by journalists, especially those—like Hill—who are employed specifically because they have strong opinions. As was the case last month, Hill has been caught up in a situation in which the very thing she’s paid to do runs afoul of her employer’s desire to stay on the sidelines of a national conversation.

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It’s easy to take an individual journalist’s side against a faceless corporate monolith, but this is an especially egregious example of institutional soullessness. As the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s Peter Sterne wrote on Twitter, “ESPN was so determined to get out in front of this controversy that they suspended Jemele before there was even a controversy.” The move reads like an overreaction to criticism the network faced for not responding more harshly to Hill’s earlier comments, but it’s also about something else.

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Monday’s announcement was ultimately a reminder that ESPN is first and foremost a money-making entity. Its concerns are Disney shareholders and corporate partners, and its ties to those partners are stronger than its commitment to the newsgathering side of its identity. The parallels between Hill’s situation and former ESPN star Bill Simmons’s 2014 suspension for criticizing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are obvious.

During last month’s controversy surrounding Hill’s comments about President Trump, longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley told Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch that he recognized, with regard to social media, that “the usual standard of saying only what you would with a microphone in your hand apparently no longer applies.” The irony in this situation is that if Hill had included her musings on a possible boycott during a SportsCenter broadcast, it’s reasonable to imagine that they would have gone largely unnoticed.

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Below, more on a Hill, Jones, race in America, and the controversy surrounding NFL protests.

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.